Documents show the Harper government allowed Alberta companies to pay thousands of foreign workers less than Canadians in 2013, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) says.

Details of the internal government documents, obtained through an Access to Information request, were shared by the group at a news conference Friday morning in Calgary.

“Behind closed doors, they knew the rules were being bent and broken, and they knew thousands of temporary foreign workers were being underpaid,” said AFL president Gil McGowan.

Gil McGowan

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the federal government allowed Alberta businesses to underpay thousands of temporary foreign workers in 2013. But he would not say how many of those cases happened in the first half of the year, when it was still legal to underpay those workers. (CBC)

Many of the foreign workers had jobs as nurse aides, front desk clerks, truck drivers, service station attendants and heavy equipment operators, among others.

The labour group says the goal of sanctioning the underpayment of thousands of workers helped drive down wages in many industries, especially in fast food services.

'Saw their wages fall'

For example, McGowan said in Alberta the average wage for the province increased by 31 per cent since 2006 — double the inflation rate, which ran at about 15 per cent over the period. He said the average wage only increased eight per cent for the fast-food sector in that time.

“Those wages for food service workers fell behind the rising cost of living, and that workers in that sector actually saw their wages fall in real terms at the very same time that employers were crying labour shortage,” he said.

McGowan says the documents also show 3,718 individual low-skill foreign worker positions were approved in Canada last year. Of those permits, 2,122 were issued to employers in Alberta.

"It's pretty clear that the problems in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program extend far beyond the food services industry," said McGowan.

"Canadians should be appalled by the picture that's painted by these documents."

Workers allowed less before rule change

New rules have since come into effect for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which has led to an outcry from many businesses.

"Canadians shouldn't feel too much sympathy for the complaints coming from business people and groups like the [Canadian Federation of Independent Business], and they shouldn't be fooled or persuaded by their arguments," said McGowan.

"The truth is that for many, or perhaps even most employers, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has never only been about filling vacant jobs. It's also been about driving down wages, not only for temporary foreign workers, but for Canadians broadly speaking."

For part of 2013, the TFWP allowed employers to pay foreign workers five to 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage in the sector. That was changed partway through the year, making it illegal to pay them less than what a Canadian would earn in the same position.

"Employers were allowed to hire a temporary foreign worker below the prevailing wage if the employer could prove that there was a Canadian being paid the same wage for doing the same job at the same location," said Jordan Sinclair, a spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada, in a release.

"This wage flexibility provision was eliminated over a year ago. Since April 2013, employers are prohibited from hiring temporary foreign workers below the prevailing wage."

'They loosened all the rules'

McGowan would not say how many of the thousands of cases the AFL highlighted Friday morning took place during the time when underpaying foreign workers was legal, and how many took place after the practice was banned.

For that reason, it's not clear at this point how many temporary foreign workers may have been illegally underpaid. But the AFL says the documents show rampant misuse of the program.

However, the federal government says it wasn’t that black and white.

"Some of the positions in question were union positions where temporary foreign workers are required to be paid the same wage as Canadian workers for the same job in the same location, regardless of the prevailing wage, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreements between the union and the employer," Sinclair said in his statement.

Liberal immigration critic John McCallum says these new documents prove what his party has been saying all along. He said the program was used as a package to please the business community.

“[The Harper government] only changed their tune rather dramatically when the issue became a scandal, but I think for a long time — starting in 2006 — they loosened all the rules,” he said, adding the country saw an explosion of temporary foreign workers from 2007 to 2012.

Changes likely to be reversed, McGowan says

The federal government again revamped the program in June after an investigation followed a CBC News series on alleged misuse of the program by fast-food outlets.

"It is important to remember that the Alberta Federation of Labour is talking entirely about the time period before the government's comprehensive reforms of the temporary foreign worker program in June 2014," said Sinclair.

Employers are now barred from hiring foreign workers in regions where unemployment is high and received a cap on the number of foreign workers they can hire.

The new rules also brought in a more stringent screening process for employers to prove they need to hire a foreign worker over a Canadian, and also increased the number of spot checks in the workplace and fines for those who break the rules.

Alberta wants more control

Alberta has since begun pushing Ottawa for more provincial control over the program.

If pressure continues to build from Alberta and businesses, McGowan says he expects the federal government will cave and reverse its changes to the program.

"We are afraid the government, which is after all a business-friendly government, is going to cave in to business pressure," he said. "These documents are a red flag."

Alberta has repeatedly struggled with a labour shortage in low-skilled and high-turnover industries, including fast food and retail.

The availability of high-paying work in the oilsands makes it hard for those industries to retain workers, and it's estimated the oilsands alone will require more than 25,000 new workers over the next 10 years.

The AFL wants the Temporary Foreign Worker Program eliminated, but the Harper government has said it plans to put a 10 per cent cap on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers employers can hire per work site by 2016.